My Own Before & After: a 3 year journey...and counting

This post has been stewing on the back burner for a very long time because it's hard for me to open up about.  November is not only the season of gratitude, but it is an anniversary for me - kind of the same thing though, actually. Three years ago this month, this story began…

I don't have any typical before and after pictures of my fitness journey.  You know the ones - in a bikini or sports bra. Mostly it's because it didn't start off as a weight loss thing.  I didn't really anticipate what this would become.  In the end, I think it's more quirkily 'me' that my before and after end up being in a parka!

In November of 2010 I was at one of the lowest points in my life physically.  I need to start with the medical stuff, because most fitness inspiration stories in the media make getting in shape a matter of willpower, when, in not only my case, but as I found throughout my journey, that of so many others, physical impairment challenges the 'just-eat-right-and-exercise' formula.

I had three main issues that took me to rock bottom.  The first is a condition I was born with - a genetic disorder called Joint Hyper-mobility Syndrome (JHMS).  I wasn't diagnosed until I was an adult.  As a child, I just thought it was cool that I had "Barbie legs," which is how I explained my knees that bent backwards to an extreme angle - just like the doll's in order to put her into her corvette! The basics of JHMS are that my ligaments are too loose all over my body.  There is a lot more to it, but that's the nutshell version.  What does it mean for me? Well, on the plus side, I'm very flexible.  I don't even feel a stretch touching my toes.  As long as I stay physically fit, my muscles keep the joints stable, and I'm mostly fine.  However, if I get out of shape - gain weight, stop exercising, lose muscle tone - I fall apart like a marionette.  Fall of 2010 I was pulling my shoulders out of their sockets just opening a car door or getting a jug of milk out of the fridge.  My knees would go out completely from under me going up or down stairs.  I was pretty fragile for looking so solid.

Secondly, I suffer from migraines.  Serious migraines.  Spots in my brain where blood-vessels have exploded due to the intensity of the pressure, borderline stroke migraines. Scary. And in the Fall of 2010, for some reason, the migraines were getting worse.  I started having them when I was only 13 years old, and had maybe one or two a month throughout my life.  But that Fall they kept piggybacking until I was having 6-8 a month with rebounds in between until I was in constant, terrible pain.

The last contributing medical issue was in the past, but still brought me to that critical point.  I had hyperemesis  with all of my pregnancies.  This is the condition where women get super sick the whole pregnancy and throw up everything.  I had to have IVs, and took anti-naseau meds given to chemo patients.  Still, I lost lots of weight with every pregnancy.  Only it wasn't a healthy weight loss.  Knowing now what I know about healthy lifestyle, I understand that every pregnancy was programming my body - from my fat cells to my metabolism - to store everything I eat.  It was a forced starvation diet, and repeating it 5 times over an 11 year period ensured that I'd be an excellent, high-efficiency fat storage machine.

So, put these together - my body storing fat and packing on pounds in preparation for another pregnancy that it couldn't understand wouldn't be coming - migraines that had increased and had debilitated me, rendering me almost sedentary (adding to the weight gain) - and my JHMS making me feel like I was falling apart (adding to the sedentary, adding to the weight gain), and I was rather a mess. I decided that the place to start had to be the migraines.  I wasn't having any more kids, so the pregnancy thing wasn't going to be an issue any more.  But the migraines had to go.  I've gone through a whole parade of doctors and physical therapists in search of headache answers, so I had no reason to believe this would be different, but I did my research, and I went to see Dr. Aduljee - the pre-eminent neurologist in the State.  His bedside manner made me nervous.  He didn't talk much.  In turn, I rambled.  And that was the key to success.  
In my ramblings he discovered two symptoms that no doctor had ever asked me about before - which I had never thought to be significant because no one had ever asked me about it before.  Turns out my migraines are in the epilepsy family.  I began treatment for epilepsy in September of that year.  October saw a host of nasty side effects.  And then November came.  Beautiful, golden November! It wasn't immediate, but the migraines definitely changed. Less frequent, less intense, fewer rebounds in between.  With more powerful instant response meds to manage onset, I was coming back to life!

The first thing I wanted to do was get in shape.  Not about weight loss initially, so much as not falling apart every time I tried to pick something up, I started going to a fitness class with a friend of mine.  I went a measly three times before I threw out my back painfully and devastatingly, just performing simple lunges. I had thought I was at rock bottom before, but this was a new low.  All I could do was lie flat on the floor, for several days, crying tears of frustration and anger.  I was not letting 5 kids, migraines and a busy life make excuses for me - I was TRYING! And yet my body only worked against me.  As I lay on the floor with my husband's laptop next to me and my daughter sitting on my stomach, I researched more than I ever had about JHMS.  I knew it made me more accident prone and at higher physical risk - but I didn't realize how many with the syndrome in circumstances very similar to mine ended up in wheelchairs by the age of 40!  This shocked me into action.  I was ready to do whatever it took.  And what it took was water.

Experts agree that water is the safest place for hyper mobiles.  I looked up local water aerobic classes and then balked.  This was new territory.  I had barely been able to carve out 20 min here and there to work out.  Water was such a time commitment.  Can't do it at home.  There's the WHOLE swimsuit problem.  I wasn't feeling great about my body. Then there's chlorine, and…and… and everyone needs a friend like Susan Fisk.  Right at that time Susan knew what I was going through and as I shared with her my findings about water aerobics she insisted we try some classes together.  That first class was a disaster!  We laughed more than we exercised, and I even ended up completely upside down at one point, but we kept going back.  And it worked.  I moved to the 5 AM classes for more consistency, and started going 6 days a week.  Susan moved on to training for a triathlon, which I was so proud of her for, and now she is on a completely different amazing adventure of a lifetime!  But I will always and forever be grateful that she was there at the exact perfect moment in my life to encourage me when I needed it.

Six days a week of water aerobics did the trick.  I was losing weight and feeling great!  I started eating better without making much of an effort at it.  I was just more interested in healthier foods.  My concept became, and still is, simply to eat in the purest form available.  Instead of apple flavored something - eat the apple.  Instead of potato chips, eat potatoes.  I know potatoes are a starch and some diets would
disapprove, but my goal isn't a body building competition - it's just healthy living.  And I like potatoes.  Whole grains, lots of veg & fruits. Pretty simple.

After a year, I had lost 40 lbs.  Most people think that water aerobics is for old people, but the great thing about water is that you get out of it what you put into it.  It resists you exactly the opposite of how hard you push.  So yes, most of my classes are wonderful older ladies who are able to gently work their muscles in an environment that is also easy on their joints.  But I can also hit it hard, work up a sweat, and work every muscle group in my body in a balanced way.  I love the water!  I warn you not to engage me in conversation on the topic because I have serious water aerobics obsession and once I get going about it, you'll hear about ALL the reasons it is a wonder exercise regimen.

I also started to want to see if I had toned enough to branch out a little and challenge gravity.  I started going to Zumba one day a week instead of water.  My first day in Zumba was so funny I came home and wrote about it - though I never published it.  I was the biggest two-left-footed dork ever.  It's unbelievable I went back.  It's my favorite day of the week now.

Then, exactly a year ago this month, I started a weights class.  I was terrified.  Remember when I said that I used to pull my shoulders out of their sockets taking milk out of the fridge? Yea, the idea of weights freaked me out.  But I needed to tone the muscles to protect the joints.  And I survived!  I made it through that first class.  (AND I made it through the next two days being too sore to move! OUCH!)  And I went back.  I've been lifting two days a week for a year now.  I love when my daughters point out my muscles!

Finally, about four months ago, I added yoga.  I was nervous to start yoga because I don't really need more flexibility.  In fact, I don't WANT more flexibility.  But an article I was reading talked about stabilizing joints through control and balance and recommended yoga.  I'm hooked.  If I could fit in more classes, I would.  I LOVE yoga!

I've tried spinning (hate, hate spinning - despite the awesome calorie burn), kick-boxing (SO much fun, but made my knees kill later), and swimming (oh, I'm terrible at establishing a breathing rhythm).  But I kind of like my little routine right now. Water aerobics, weights, yoga, zumba, weights, water aerobics. That's the week.

Until I hurt my upper back about a month ago.
Don't know how.  Something I pulled or pinched in weights class.  Played around with going back to the gym off and on, then finally just rested it for three weeks. And now my workout routine consists of rolling over to turn off the alarm and going back to sleep.  After 3 years of consistency, after over 60 lbs of weight loss, after research and self-diagnosis and feeling my way to my own happy, healthy me, where has my motivation gone?  I bluster around that "normal" people take it for granted that they can just exercise.  I love to run, for example, but it destroys my knees, hips, even my feet - because of the impact on loose joints.  Born with a competitive nature, I yearn to compete, to do a triathlon or a half-marathon - but jogging even 1K leaves me in misery and extended training could have long lasting consequences.  Everything inside me wants to push my limits - exercise hard, participate in extreme sports - but my marionette body betrays my spirit.
And now my spirit too seems to be lagging.
Hiking…without my knee brace!!
Motivation is a tricky thing to begin with.  They don't give out cool window stickers or make motivational "way to go" posters for daily hard work against great physical odds - only if your body lets you run the race.  I chuckle to myself whenever an instructor inspires us with "come on, you can do this! Think how you'll look in your skinny jeans!" or something similar.  Because my inspiration is more along the lines of "think of how much longer you'll stay out of that wheelchair!" Except I'm lying.  I tell myself that's what this is all about.  I want to think I'm above body image and I'm totally engaged in health aspects.  But I pin those workouts for flatter abs and a tighter butt too.  I want to feel like I'm at the gym for medical self-improvement not vanity, but I am angry and frustrated that I've plateaued 10-15 lbs from my goal weight for the last year for no explicable reason - and I'm as vain as anyone else.  And despite the feminist love-the-body-you-have side of my brain, my before and after pictures can't help but motivate me (even while looking at them makes me hypocritically self-critical.  Modern women are a mess!).

So here I am, at the three year anniversary of my fitness journey searching for a re-boot of my motivation - a revival of my willpower.  In essence, I'm writing this post for myself, to remind myself of my REAL motivation; that I am three years older, yet I feel younger, healthier and have more energy than I did then.  My migraines are managed - down to one every four to six weeks.  And I am beyond thankful for a life and a body that I never would have imagined possible then.  It is essential to look back on days that I get frustrated, like with my current annoyance with my minor back injury.  It is fine and healthy to remind my vanity of the before and after pictures (even if - or especially because -they're not in bikinis!).  It is good to remember that even though my body throws up roadblocks and frustrations, I have made progress before and I can and will keep on going.  And it's good to remember all the people along the way who have inspired me with their stories.  Because for all of my own issues, many of the great people I've met on my fitness journey have equally challenging difficulties, physical, emotional or otherwise in their own lives.  People are always stronger than they think they are.  November reminds me of that.
Yea, that's right, I'm long boarding. And I suck at it. But so what?


Angela said...

I absolutely love this!! Thank you so much for sharing! I started exercising after having sciatic nerve issues that rendered it excruciating to walk, sit, move, etc. for 5 years. Chiropractics did nothing, massage did nothing, exercise fixed it and it's been absolutely fine for 4 years now. I ran a half marathon in September and pulled a ligament in my foot about mile 11. I finished in my goal time, but the next two months were painful walking and completely threw my workout routine.... I too am struggling with the motivation right now, and therefore I've done next to nothing. So, here's to rededication and motivation to keep our bodies healthy!! I think you are AMAZING.

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful Tamara! Great inspiration. I joined a gym in September to get fit and postpone diabetes that's runs in my family. Part of me wants those dramatic "hot body" changes but I am learning to accept just being healthy and feeling better. I remind myself I'm pretty good for someone turning that scary 40 this year and have had 5 babies too. Thanks! Amy Curnutt

Tammy said...

This is a beautifully written post. I'm home with the flu on New Years and catching up on blogs and the like.

We had a personal trainer come to our ward RS last January and I love what he taught us. He said if we are just into our exercise for the hot body we want to get we will burn out quickly and stop altogether. He explained that no matter how much weight or muscle you loose or gain you will still look in the mirror and want more or be jealous when you see other people looking better than you. What he said...and I had started myself a year to find the core reason you want to exercise. For me it is to not get osteoporosis like my Grandmother and it really affects tall people. I also have to be careful with joint issues because when you are tall and willowy all your muscles and joints have less mass and more easily are thrown out or injured. Back injuries are a huge problem in my tall family. I also have bad circulation from my grandmother that is improved with exercise. So rolling all of this together...3 years ago I woke up one day and decided I didn't want to be an old decrepit woman. With our kids coming later in life I will still have children living with me well into my 50s. My new ideal became Jacob's grandmother who lived to 98 in near perfect health until 6 months before she died and had a stroke. Her secret...she went to Curves 5 days a week through her 70s 80s and 90s working out for half an hour.

My routine is all exercise videos because of the little ones but I do Pialtes, weights, legs, abs and but. It is amazing how much better I feel.

I can only imagine the sheer determination it must have taken you with all your health challenges. I admire and love you! Keep up the awesome work!

Anonymous said...

Positively wonderful! You are a true inspiration! Thank you for sharing :)

LeeAnn@Encouragement Is Contagious said...

What an inspiration YOU are!

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